The Exploitation Of Theatre Actors In The UK: The Need For Radical Change In The Arts

Marcus Cameron looks at the exploitation of those working in the arts, and how Labour can protect those in the creative industry if in Government. 

On May Bank Holiday this year, it was announced that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical Cinderella would be closing. This was a complete shock to theatre audiences, fans of the show and most of all the actors and company of the show who weren’t even notified beforehand when this news broke. Not even their agents were made aware until the news was plastered all over social media!

Now, there’s a lot to say about Andrew Lloyd Webber as a person. Some hail him as a revolutionary in musical theatre, paving the way for young contemporary theatre composers. Others see him as a monster who flew all the way from New York to London in a private jet to vote with the House of Lords’ Tory whip to cut tax credits in 2015. But even if we take the individual out of the situation, we’re still left with an even bigger issue relating to the arts industry in the UK and how it abuses its workers with little to no consequence.

Summer Strallen, an actress who was set to feature in the new cast, stated in an article for The Guardian: “Theatre is a vocational profession, which can mean many of us simply feel grateful to even earn a living, and everyone is, to a certain degree, made to feel disposable.”

There can be no denying the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic had on everyone, but especially the performing arts sector. None of the furlough packages given out by the government barely touched those in the gig economy, which includes actors and other performers unable to work due to the pandemic. And it certainly didn’t help when the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak suggested that performers should “retrain”. What the former Chancellor failed to realise was that many actors were working throughout the pandemic, be it doing what they love in scheduling Zoom workshops with fans and performance students to working in the retail industry for some form of stability in a very unstable time.

The performing arts is an incredibly volatile sector to be part of, even prior to Covid. Auditions and applications for roles in productions, talking with agencies, networking with casting directors and ultimately paying to travel for an audition is costly and requires a lot of hard work for many people, not least for young actors who don’t have the necessary connections (usually through circumstances involving some form of either nepotism or luck) or never went to a prestigious drama school such as RADA.

It's estimated that only 5% of performers and creatives are in work in the industry at any one time, meaning the chances of getting any work is slim enough. As such, bank accounts and mental health go into a downward spiral and the only thing people say that sums up the entire situation is the old adage “That’s Showbiz”. A phrase that punctuates ignorance for not just an actor’s ambition, but also their basic need. Actors should not have to feel like they should have to choose between their career or their bills. Their career should provide for them, even if they can’t work or have work taken from them.

But how does this relate the events that occurred regarding Cinderella? Well, for starters, it was one of the first new shows to come onto the West End, providing many jobs to those who were previously unable to work for the past couple of years. And just as things were on the up, with a brand-new cast about to be announced, the decision to shut the show prior the changeover is perhaps the biggest slap in the face any performer could receive. Especially with a show that would’ve allowed actors to pay their rent and bills very comfortably for a while. What makes this situation even worse is that the contractual clauses the actors and company signed into are in fact 100% legal.

So, what can the next Labour government do to support theatre actors and prevent further exploitation? Trade union Equity UK, the largest union representing performers and creatives in the UK, has suggested that the government must improve Universal Credit support for creatives and invest in the arts as part of the Levelling Up scheme. And as necessary as these steps are, Labour must do more when in government to ensure that performers and creatives in the UK theatre industry are protected from exploitative contractual clauses and measures that make the performing arts more volatile than they should be. A good suggestion would be to propose legislation that would firmly prohibit the contractual clauses that production companies use to exploit their performers and creatives and still allows them to call off productions without advanced notice to their employees. Clauses like these are an effective “Get Out of Jail Free” card for producers wanting to keep more money than they earn rather than pay their actors a fair wage. As Strallen further emphasises in her article:

“Like any industry with a big power imbalance, it is the workers who suffer – all too often we accept low wages and poor conditions because it has always been this way – and I would like to see more theatre workers joining their unions. Theatre cannot be an industry where only the wealthy can work. I’d also like those with the power to treat the workers who create the product that they’re selling with humanity.”

Therefore, it is imperative that Labour must focus on ensuring that those working in the arts are not being exploited to the point the cast of Cinderella were by their production company. Cinderella is just one example of this happening, but it just so happens to be the most public occurrence. The government must be able to put measures in place that would protect workers from exploitation in the arts and also provide creatives and performers with the necessary support when they are not in work. Performing is a vocation and a viable career path, and performers and creatives should not have to feel less than adequate purely for choosing to follow their passion.

Marcus Cameron is an actor, singer and activist based in Warrington, Cheshire. He is studying Law at University of Law, Manchester. He tweets at @MCLabActivist

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